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Basil dishes up classic Italian flavor in eye-catching bushy plants suitable for garden beds or containers. Grow this tasty beauty in a sunny spot, and you'll reap rewards of flavorful foliage in shades of green, purple, or bronze. Basil lends a distinctive taste to salads, pizza, and pasta dishes. Use small leaves whole; chop larger leaves. Add leaves to dishes just before serving for greatest taste and aroma. Basil plants are exceedingly sensitive to cold; start basil seeds indoors or plant basil outside after all danger of frost has passed.
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garden plans for Basil
An exceptionally easy-to-grow herb, basil produces tasty foliage from early summer through fall. Grow basil in containers right outside your back door for garden-fresh flavor within steps of the kitchen. You can even grow basil in winter months. Just place it in a bright, sunny window and water regularly.
You'll see many kinds of basil in the herb section of large garden centers and nurseries. Flavors and types include the classic pesto-favorite Genovese basil, slightly spicy Cinnamon basil (also known as Mexican spice basil), and lemon basil with its light lemon fragrance. The size of basil plants also varies greatly. Petite Boxwood basil, which grows in a dense round shape, reaches just 6 to 12 inches tall. Siam Queen (commonly used in Thai cooking) is a bushy cultivar covered with flavor-rich leaves that stands 3 feet tall.
Grow basil alongside other culinary herbs such as parsley, chives, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and dill for a bountiful collection of fresh fragrant foliage. A colorful group of containers stocked with basil and other herbs can turn any full-sun patio or balcony into a smorgasbord of flavor. Just make sure basil gets at least 6 hours of bright sunlight a day.
Seed a row of your favorite basil variety in the garden to ensure plenty of succulent leaves for making pesto or flavoring summer dishes. When planted near tomatoes, basil displays an ability to repel pests such as thrips (tiny winged insects) and tomato hornworms.
Basil also feels right at home in a mixed border. This herb's green or purple foliage complements a host of annuals and perennials. Although basil's summer blooms are not desirable for cooking, they add interest to a landscape planting.
Must-Know Growing Tips
Basil grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. It can tolerate part shade, but plants will not be as robust or bushy as those grown in full sun. Once established, basil will withstand dry conditions as long as it is watered regularly. In midsummer basil produces flowers that lead to woody stems and leaves with less-desirable flavor. Snip away flowering stems as soon as you spot them to promote new, tasty foliage.
Basil is quick to germinate and easy to grow from seed. Start basil seed indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost or direct seed it in the garden after the last spring frost. Do not plant basil outside until the last chance of frost passes in your area.
Japanese beetles are basil's primary—and most destructive—pest. Non-chemical methods should be used to control these insects on food crops such as basil. Hand-pick Japanese beetles off basil plants in early evening and toss them into a container of soapy water where they will perish. Protect single or small basil plants by covering them with cheesecloth. The loosely woven fabric will allow light and water to pass through while stopping beetles from reaching the plants.
Start snipping as soon as plants unfurl at least four sets of leaves. Pick only as many individual leaves as you'll use. To store fresh basil for up to five days, clip sprigs and treat them like fresh cut flowers—in water at room temperature. Basil turns brown if stored in the refrigerator. When frost threatens, cut plants, plunging stems into a few inches of water in a clean bucket.
To store leaves, dry, freeze, or hot pack in sterilized bottles with vinegar and olive oil. Or preserve basil flavor in pesto, which stores in the refrigerator up to one month and can be frozen for up to two years.
More Varieties of Basil
'African Blue' basil
'African Blue' is a hybrid variety of Ocimum that can grow up to 4 feet tall and wide. The young leaves have a purplish-blue cast but turn green when mature. Its flowers are pink, making it an attractive ornamental plant. It has a camphor scent and less desirable flavor than most culinary basils, but it can still be used in cooking.
'Cardinal' is named for its reddish-purple flower clusters that resemble celosia. This Ocimum basilicum also has attractive burgundy stems on plants that reach 24-30 inches tall. Harvest and use the green leaves as you would other culinary basils.
'Pesto Party' basil
This new variety of Ocimum basilicum lowers later in the season than other basil varieties. Since it's late-flowering, that means 'Pesto Party' produces loads of tasty leaves throughout summer without the need to remove flowering stems. It is a well-branched plant with sweet Italian basil flavor.